THE TERM “SUPERGROUP” is too often thrown around when musicians from popular bands come together to form a new unit. One of two things usually happens. Either the group focuses on the writing of hit songs for a mainstream audience, compromising their individual instrumental talents. Or the new collective decides to show off their skills as players, the singer and the song an afterthought. The Winery Dogs is that rare occasion when three prodigies who have enjoyed success in earlier outfits come together and focus on the big picture. The talents of Billy Sheehan, Mike Portnoy and Richie Kotzen are well-known to any music lover that has been paying attention the last several decades. The two albums that The Winery Dogs have released to date do not shy away in the least from those individual talents or from the incredible interplay that is only possible when musicians of this level interact with each other. But the infectious nature of the compositions recorded on these records and performed from city to city cannot be denied.
Red Hot Rock Magazine had the opportunity to speak several times, at generous length, to members of The Winery Dogs over a period of time that began after the release of the band’s first, self-titled album. Our conversations continued until just after the great Hot Streak was born, shortly before this issue of Red Hot Rock was being prepared to go to print. We begin with the ever-enthusiastic Billy Sheehan.
RED HOT ROCK MAGAZINE: Hey, Billy. It’s great to speak to you again. Your show I saw last week was just absolutely fantastic. Out of all the times I have seen you perform over the years, I believe that this was my favorite show.
BILLY SHEEHAN: Oh. That’s very kind of you. Thanks. Man. I’m glad to hear it. It was a good one.
RHRM: And it wasn’t just musically fantastic. One could tell that you guys were having a good time onstage. Especially when in a small club, it translates to the audience and makes the show that much more fun for them when the artists are enjoying themselves.
BS: Exactly. And we are, in fact. It’s a lot of fun to do this show and we’re enjoying the hang, too. Sometimes a great percentage of the effectiveness or the enjoyment of a band is when you’re… On tour, you know, you’re with people twenty four-seven. And you’re at airports together, on flights together, on the bus together, at hotels together all of the time. If the hang isn’t good, it can get pretty dreadful. I’ve been in situations where the hang wasn’t good, ha ha, and, uh, it was not pleasant. But this one, in particular, is really great. We have a good time hanging out. We all get together on the bus after the show and generally yuck it up and have some great times. It’s a really cool thing.
RHRM: Every time I have the opportunity to speak to you, I look forward to it. Besides your obvious passion for music and for what you do, you are such an easy person with whom to talk. You have always been generous and courteous and just a perfect gentleman. I can’t say the same for everyone to whom I speak. Ha ha.
BS: Ha ha ha ha. Sorry to hear. I guess I’m older and I’m old school. My dad taught me the proper way to deal with people. And I grew up watching Johnny Carson, ha, on The Tonight Show and how he handled every guest, how he spoke with people and how he was always respectful and things like that. To me, that meant something. When people speak to me, I appreciate when they address me in a particular way. It makes the conversation go well. It creates great friendships. I try to do the same as best I can. And generally, also, if I am in a horrible mood or a shitty mood or if I’m not up to talking to people, I don’t go around people. Ha ha. If I’m having a rough day, I usually stay away from anyone and try to keep to myself.
RHRM: It’s usually the guys in bands that are like twenty-two, twenty-three years old that don’t have much to say. They don’t have any story yet. It’s going to take them another few years to actually have a story to tell.
BS: Exactly. That’s a good point.
RHRM: They seem to sometimes take on an attitude that takes the place of not having much to say.
BS: Yeah. It’s a very good point. And I think a lot of the things that happened with them, I know for myself what happened with me when I was eighteen, nineteen years old, twenty, twenty-one, starting up bands. I didn’t really know what I was doing. I was just kinda letting nature take its course. It wasn’t until I had a few horrible gigs and a few catastrophes and a few breakups and a few reunions and, ha, and somebody else in the band would get a girlfriend. A couple of things like that and the wisdom starts to take hold a little bit.
RHRM: So let’s dive into The Winery Dogs. I digested as much as I could with the album, the DVD, the live show and the Dog Treats box. So we have plenty of stuff to talk about. When I caught the band live, there is one thing that jumped out at me that I wanted to point out. Besides the fact that all three of you are prodigies, individually fantastic on your chosen instruments, and the show is so enjoyable overall, Mike Portnoy is a nutcase onstage. It is incredible that he is such a great drummer that he can be so entertaining at the same time, without missing a beat. I am a drummer myself and I know that it is enough just to concentrate on your two hands and two feet if you want to accomplish anything.
BS: Generally, he has a pretty good handle on keeping things rolling. Similarly, I do a lot of moves myself that aren’t necessarily orthodox, I would say. Ha ha. The trick is to be able to do that while you continue with a song. And I think, once you’ve played long enough, drums, bass, guitar, vocals, whatever, just standing there and singing the song or having your fingers in their traditional position to play what you’re supposed to play, after a while if it becomes boring to me I can imagine it must be a little boring to the audience. So to avoid that, my right hand will come underneath the body or the bass will go on my other shoulder or something like that, just to kind of break up the monotony of… You’ve got to repeat about… There’s a lot of notes you’ve got to play over and over again. If you’re playing sixteenth notes in a song with your right hand on the cymbal, you’re gonna have to play about thirty-eight-hundred of them during the song. So after awhile, why not throw the stick in the air a couple of times and grab it. I’ve never really thought it through as to why it might be, but I do know that a lot of my shenanigans came from playing clubs night after night after night in front of the same people every single night, playing the same songs every single night. And after awhile, I just decided I’m not just gonna stand here and play this D note traditionally for the next five minutes again, for the third time tonight, for the sixth time this week, you know, so my hand would go over the neck. So, I think it’s the same thing. Once you do something long enough, you could do it upside down or backwards and it will still pretty much sound the same.
RHRM: One thing that I love about this band is that the umbrella of what the three of you are doing is classic groove-based hard rock. But underneath that, you have all left plenty of room for awe-inspiring instrumental madness. It’s pretty difficult to place those two things together. There aren’t that many bands that nail both of those things. There are incredible musicians performing fantastic instrumental stuff or fairly straightforward groove-based bands. It’s pretty rare that a band is able to blend together both those aspects and it doesn’t feel as if anything was forced.
BS: No. Absolutely not forced. Everything came together real organically. And as a fan, I would always get a new record or get into a band and they’d be playing the A chord for four measures and then go to the D chord. And then, “Wait, wait, wait, wait. Before you go to the D chord, couldn’t you have done something, you know? Just couldn’t you have done a little thing or something there?” ‘Cause it’s going into the D chord and it’s going to go into the D chord the next time the chorus comes up and the next time the chorus comes up. Couldn’t we just have a little frosting on the cake there? So, I have always been of that mind. In this band, we’re generous with the frosting. Sometimes we thin it out a little bit. But we like to try to embellish things to make them a little more interesting. ‘Cause basically, we can strum the chords of a song and sing it. There’s the song. It makes sense. Hopefully, you got a song that is engaging, that draws you in, that you find interesting. But in the meantime, there’s a lot more that could be done. And I was always disappointed by a lot of bands with which there wasn’t more going on. You don’t have to overplay it or overdo it. But sometimes, it’s almost like dead air on the radio when people stop talking in between sentences and there’s nothing there. And on radio, they never want to do that. On TV, they never want to do that. There’s rarely a time when there’s not something flashed in your face on TV constantly. That’s show biz. That’s entertainment. You don’t have people sitting in their seats while nothing’s happening. So, within the context of music and the music we’ve done in The Winery Dogs, we’ve left it open-ended so we can use our imagination and do some improvisation. Certainly some improvisation. A lot of the show, we have the basic fundamentals of the song, which will go unchanged. Otherwise, it would be a different song. And every night, something different happens. I don’t think I ever played a bass the same way in any song twice ever. And I don’t think anyone can do it exactly the same. Maybe some can. I can’t. But a lot of guys keep it relatively the same. We give each other room to move. It’s interesting. It keeps it alive. It’s growing. If we recorded all of those songs again today, you would recognize them, but there would be different parts. A lot of different parts.
RHRM: The songs have it all. Incredible musicianship, great grooves and catchy choruses. So, congratulations. Ha ha.
RHRM: For a guy that plays such technically complex and challenging stuff on your instrument, you seem to enjoy a more spontaneous manner of getting together with other players and creating music, both with improvisation onstage and when going into the studio. It seems a little counterintuitive, but it obviously works for you.
BS: Yeah. I love to pursue things on the bass as far as I can take them. I still, every day…I’m going to the venue early today so that I can set up in the dressing room and work out for a couple of hours on my bass and just do my thing. I do that almost every single day, even when I’m off the road. But I love regular, old music. It doesn’t have to have oddball, quirky time changes or impossible chord voicings. I love basic, straight up music. I’m a Sinatra fan. I love Bobby Darin. I love The Beatles. If I get a guitar and there’s a bottle of wine and a bunch of friends, I have literally gone for four or six hours sitting and playing and singing songs. You know, Beach Boys, Grand Funk Railroad, Three Dog Night, Crosby, Stills & Nash, Beatles, Stones, Hendrix, you name it. Just song after song after song after song. And it’s enjoyable to just sing and play songs. As a bass player, it’s a different function to play bass in a song. And I like to do basic bass, too. And I have great respect for basic bass players who don’t do any shenanigans at all. You know, they just solidly hold the bottom end together. So, I’ve never been prejudiced one way or the other towards how technical or nontechnical a song has to be. But generally, I do know that when the more technical a song gets, the lower the scope of appeal it has to the general public. And that’s a sad thing. ‘Cause we would hope the general public would rise up and embrace something that challenges them. However, that is not the case. When you’re in a bar and a simple, basic rock song comes on, you’ll see people singing along and bopping their heads and having a good time. Suddenly, you get some complicated, complex piece of music, the whole place goes quiet and nobody really’s paying attention and it’s not as appealing to as many people. So I think that an underlying little secret, if you will, is that it’s the musician’s responsibility to engage the audience. So when I go out and see some instrumental band playing far-out, progressive music and there’s forty people there, I go, “You know whose fault that is? It’s not the audience’s fault. It’s your fault. You have not presented it in a way that they will embrace it.” And so, within The Winery Dogs and within Mr. Big a little bit, certainly within the Eat ‘em And Smile days with David Lee Roth and a lot of other bands I’ve been involved in, we try to get that element in there, but we do it in a way that people will embrace it who are nonmusicians. Because unfortunately, when musicians start playing for other musicians, it’s the dog chasing its tail, I think. I think we should be concerned about the nonmusician that is not familiar with any of our music. Can you play a song that suddenly the guy that’s working on your car will… “Hey, what song is that? I love that.” As opposed to the guy that’s got his PhD in pentatonic, Mongolian scales. To me, that’s the real challenge. And we actually do quite a bit of that within The Winery Dogs. Some of it unconscious. But still, nevertheless, we try to do something in there that adds a little bit of flair, a little verve, a little excitement, without losing the base of the general public, which is really who we’re performing for.
RHRM: I agree that it’s kind of sad, but also kind of interesting, what you touched on there. I have had this conversation many times with people and I think that I often bore them. Ha ha. But what you touched on when it comes to music, people that have very limited tastes and are not willing to challenge themselves with other types of music, you can basically apply that to what types of films they see, what kind of books they read, or if they read books at all…..ha ha ha…..
BS: Ha ha.
RHRM: I don’t want to sound like a snob, but that kind of thing probably translates across the rest of that kind of person’s life, as well.
BS: It can. It certainly can. I think everybody’s capable of some intense, intricate technicality, whether it’s figuring out their email preferences or what they do in their job. And sometimes they like to take a break from that. For me, I pursue a lot of things that many people wouldn’t. I read a lot. I don’t watch a lot of TV. I don’t dislike TV. But I’m just more challenged by a book. And I do like a broad array of music. I love garage rock from the ‘60s. I have this huge collection of garage bands from the ‘60s. Thousands of bands. And tens of thousands of tracks of these obscure, little bands that played and they’re out of tune completely and the same chord changes from all the other songs that were out at the time. It’s fascinating to me, you know. I enjoy it very much. I don’t cut it off that it’s got to be a certain level of technical expertise in order to be acceptable. Even book-wise, I remember one time I was stuck in a situation that I recall and the only book that was around was Hollywood Wives by Jackie Collins. And I read it. And it was great! I couldn’t put it down. Not the thing I would normally read. I just finished a biography on Nikola Tesla and I’m reading a couple other political books and various other books on history and things like that that I enjoy. But I absolutely enjoy entertaining nonsense. I love Family Guy, you know. I try to spread it around. There’s certainly value in all of it. But I do think, again, musicians really need to step back and take their responsibility. If people are coming to see your band where your bass player is playing a forty-six string bass and every measure is a different time signature than the last one, I don’t know if it’s necessarily the audience’s fault that you’re not doing well. I think there’s a way to get great music to people. It’s a challenge. That’s a challenge that musicians have to take. And we’ve been very, very lucky in The Winery Dogs at how people have accepted this band. And we’re supremely thankful for that. And that’s mind-blowing. You know, I’ve put out a lot of records. You’ve just got to roll the dice. While we like it, we don’t know if the general public will take to it or not. Ha ha ha. And we got lucky and they did. So we’re really, really thankful for that. And I think… We didn’t think this through when we made the record. We all automatically knew when to pull back. You know, “It’s time for… I need to hear this chorus. I can’t be hearing… I want to really hear the lyrics to this chorus and I really want it to come flying out of the speakers. There’s no room for anything else here. We want to hear the singing part, the harmony part.” And that’s what we get. And all of us instinctively kind of think that way. Mike’s mostly known for his progressive stuff, yet he’s a huge fan of all kinds of straight up rock. And myself, too. Richie, as well. So, we’ve…
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